The Hustler (1961) – Review

Directed by Robert Rossen (All The King’s Men), The Hustler was nominated for both Best Picture and Director. The film also garnered several acting nominations: Paul Newman for Actor, Piper Laurie for Actress and George C. Scott and Jackie Gleason for Supporting Actor. The Hustler was nominated for Adapted Screenplay and won the Oscars for both Art Direction (Harry Horner & Gene Callahan) and Cinematography (Eugen Schufftan, inventor of the Schufftan Process).

The Hustler, based on the novel of the same name by Walter Tevis, tells the story of a young pool shark named Fast Eddie (Paul Newman) who travels from pool hall to pool hall across the country suckering patrons out of their money. Eddie is young and talented, yet he’s cocky and doesn’t know when to quit while he’s ahead. The opening scene of the film shows us how a typical day in the life of this hustler might go. Eddie flaunts his cash, gets drunk and pretends to be someone who is horrible at pool but doesn’t realize it. As soon as the stakes are high enough, he sobers up and nails the shot.

Cue (no pun intended) the opening credits which consist of various scenes of Eddie winning money and the shocked looks on the suckers’ faces, frozen on the screen, when they realize they’ve been hustled. The opening credits are very Guy Ritchie-esque. They remind me of films like Snatch and Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels. They serve somewhat of a purpose to the development of the overall story. The credits cram a few days worth of hustling into a minute or so of film backed by bright, jazzy lounge music. The film uses these techniques well. There is a scene where Minnesota Fats, played by the all-business Jackie Gleason, nails shot after shot with overlapping/dissolving scenes of on looking patrons counting and collecting their money. This tells us a lot in a very short amount of time. Minnesota Fats is winning a lot and fast and so is everyone else that’s in on the action.

The Hustler consists of a handful of actors that play their parts well. Jackie Gleason is Minnesota Fats, the renowned pool player who never loses. Bert Gordon plays the reserved, yet powerful and controlling benefactor of young and talented pool sharks that he can use for his own hustling purposes. Piper Laurie plays the drunk, lame, single woman who falls in love with Eddie. It also helps that the film has a decent script. For a film to become timeless and relevant today, like The Hustler, the script must be well-written and not simply a product of its era.

The relationship between Sarah and Eddie might seem slightly unnecessary, but it serves a purpose. The two fit together well. They’re both down on their luck, lonely and love to drink. However, they both benefit from each others’ company. One gets the impression that Sarah benefits more, at least in the beginning. In the end, though, it was Eddie’s relationship with Sarah that was the sole contributing factor to his growing as a person.

One of the great things about this film is it’s revelation of the act of hustling. I love the elements of mystery regarding the pool players’ strategy. They lose or win by a lot or a little on purpose all as a strategy to fool the other guy. The thing is, the audience is never really sure what those strategies. We’re not sure who’s hustling who. It keeps us guessing even after the games are over. Eddie’s great at pool and a decent hustler, but in the beginning of the film, he doesn’t know when to quit. Eddie’s true love is pool and has very little interest in anything else, except perhaps, Sarah. By the end, Eddie’s character has evolved into a more poised pool player and decent human being. He has become less of a hustler and more of a man. He’s learned when to quit.

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